Director: Sunaina Bhatnagar
Cast: Madiha Imam, Shreya Chaudhary, Manisha Koirala
Maya isn’t as eccentric as Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham. She isn’t as flamboyant as Ruskin Bond’s Maharani of Mastipur. She isn’t as freakish as Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. She is perhaps only Manisha Koirala, long after we once knew her.
She is the living manifestation of a not-so-urban legend: reclusive, lonely, traumatized and, therefore, intensely cinematic – the kind one imagines as a withered face in a mysterious painting, occupying a dilapidated mansion swallowed by unruly grapevines and foggy dusks.
Late into the night, perhaps she even plays a booming organ stored away in an aesthetically dusty corner of her eerie wooden cottage. Or, even better, perhaps she owns two ferocious Great Danes, fills her musty spaces with caged birds and horror-film-like handmade dolls, with only her ancient caretaker trotting around like a desensitized ghost.
Some of this is true about Maya Devi. Depression lends itself to the visual aesthetic of cinema like no other condition. But it’s the idea of her – the literary nature of her, the infamous backstories, crumpled beauty, fearful eyes and faded Rajasthani jewelry – that fuels the imagination of two convent-going Shimla teenagers, Anna (Madiha Imam) and Ira (Shreya Chaudhary).
For them, all of it is true.
There’s something about the disquieting silence of smaller towns that force their bored occupants into concocting their own artistic mediums of escape. Maya is their very own story. This jaded spinster is better than the books they read, or the movies they watch. “You mean where Black was shot?” one of them perks up excitedly at a dinner-table conversation, perhaps excited by the stray thought that Maya is their real Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan, in Black).
She is the crux of a quintessential hill-station fable for them, one that they think they can rewrite, and one Anna thinks she can maybe complete. Ira, the flakier one, comes up with something that starts as a prank. They send her lyrical love letters from a fictitious man named Ved, the kind perhaps a young Ranbir Kapoor would send to isolated characters from his own stories in Tamasha.
Being the soulful one, Anna wants to create her own fairytale and turn the frog back into a princess. There is a lovely montage in which she notices how her letters are starting to bring positive changes in Maya’s behavior. And another sweet part in which she begins to feel the first pangs of love with a boy – a soaring feeling that automatically pours into her choice of words for Maya. What she doesn’t know then, however, is that hope is a selfish – and dangerously adult – emotion. She doesn’t know yet that Maya’s longing is real, even if her image isn’t.
First-time director Sunaina Bhatnagar, an Imtiaz Ali protégé, designs the first half of Dear Maya exactly the way 16-year-old Anna and Ira see it. She romanticizes and waxes wistful about the frames accommodating Maya, as if she were a fleeting face of the girls’ fast-fading memory. The background score is classic British Oscar-bait-drama-ish, a Theory of Everything sort of piano-and-guitar riff that defines the nostalgia of this environment. I could almost smell the teakwood. It transported me into the girls’ little universe, keeping me invested in their friendship, families and changing equations.
It made me believe that the mountains should be everyone’s childhood, so that even when the time to leave comes – as it does in Anna’s case – it makes big cities the villainous equivalent of growing up.
And that’s the thing about the second half. It could have gone in many directions. So when it takes us to Delhi six years later, we begin to expect a lot of harsh metropolitan clichés. Scenes of innocence lost, cynicism found and what not. When we see Anna’s hunky Punjabi boyfriend, we begin to expect the worst. When we see her estranged best friend Ira visit her, we begin to expect all sort of modern-versus-dated personality clashes. When we see them still trying to look for Maya, we hope against hope – just like Maya once did – despite feeling a pit at the bottom of our stomachs. Because it’s Delhi. It’s the India we know too much of.
Yet, the maker subverts most of these templates, still making it seem like a completely different – and not sobering – film. At one point, Anna returns to Shimla to visit her parents. We expect the classic moment where a small-town girl, after being pushed and prodded by the fast-paced outside world, re-embraces her roots and finds comfort again. Instead, she notices a swanky building where Maya’s house once stood. She stares at it, perhaps realizing that it actually doesn’t look so bad.
Modernization, after all, is evolution, even if Art might view it as the good-looking and sterile villain to nostalgia’s ugly and crumbling hero. This progressive outlook, in essence, is what Bhatnagar accomplishes with the rest of the story. It doesn’t feel like a contrarian voice for the heck of it; Madiha Imam and Shreya Chaudhary express more than just a change of hairstyles and wardrobe here.
But the problem is not what the film tries to say in the last ten minutes, but how it says this. It preaches and teaches, in an awkward moral-of-the-story way. Everything I’ve written above is spelled out in an attempt to showcase a glamorous comeback vehicle. There’s also an unnecessary cameo – maybe one of the necessary evils that befalls even some of the best debutant filmmakers. Exposition is fine, but perhaps letting viewers process the transformation for themselves is the more “modern” way to go.
Despite its fall at the final hurdle, I felt a lot of Dear Maya. I sincerely felt for Anna and Ira, even if I was told to feel for Maya. More importantly, this doesn’t feel, or look, like a first film. Half of it belongs to the pages of a book, and the other half to life – a rare combination only two other films this year can boast of. Both of them (Wonder Woman, A Death in the Gunj) are in cinemas this week, too, and most importantly, all three are directed by women. As I said – evolution.